Winter outings under a clear sky and high moon make for pleasant social excursions, especially when everyone is properly kitted up. The city of Nelson is ringed by hills, and with just a few turns in the road – usually uphill – you are soon removed from urban lights and noise. There’s safety in numbers too, and so I was out with four venturesome women friends. Parking at the Tantragee Saddle, we walked down the access road to Groom Creek, a minor tributary of the Maitai.
Not so long ago this was a charming byway, which criss-crossed Groom Creek with rustic copses along the way. Now the road has been upgraded to take logging trucks, and its leafy margins have been cleared. Above, we’re close to a logging platform, as the rigging suggests. With moonlight photography only occasionally can you see what you’re doing in the Lumix LX3 viewfinder, so to have the bright sky and cloud quite visible this night was a big help.
With a 50 second exposure (f2, ISO 200) and four people posing, there’s little scope for extra shots, and you have to think quickly on the technicals and how to choreograph your subjects. So I was happy to get this in just one exposure. Then there’s the fun of everyone waiting another 50 seconds for the image to show – while I try to think of other possible angles. However, you have to keep up with the company, and that night some of them were reluctant to stand still because they were cold.
Active ingredients in this pic are the moving cloud, silhouettes and the unexpected profile of the derrick. You could get a similar effect with a sunlit underexposure, and then take a dozen variations quite quickly too, but the cloud blur as a capping element is simply not possible by day. In outdoor terms, captured motion is a creative dimension unique to deep twilight and the dark.
The ceaseless winds of a Taranaki spring have just one benefit for long exposure camerawork – they create more moving subjects to photograph. Here moonlit clouds provide an unusual, fast-moving background to the foreshore wind-wand, itself in continuous motion. A kinetic sculpture by Len Lye, the wind-wand is the centrepiece of the coastal walkway. A red light on the tip of the wand demonstrates its sinuous movement in this photo, taken last night from the plaza of Puke Ariki (Taranaki museum) under a peekaboo moon. I had noted the location earlier in the day, and as it happened, not many other locations were workable when the moon was up because of the strong, cold southwesterly blowing over the province.
Not being a complete ill-wind, it “blows somebody good” in this 30-second exposure at f10, ISO 1000, through an 85mm lens. The light balance was set to my city-night favourite, tungsten. This setting has deepened the sky blue considerably, while fanning out the light at the wand’s business end to feature a more attractive yellow.
That the tungsten app is little known to non-commercial photographers is clear from a recent American book on night photography, in which I could find no reference to it. Tungsten is not a match for all artificial lighting however, as flash lighting, mercury vapour and even some torch bulbs are closer to daylight in their colour temperature (white balance). On the other hand, tungsten is a good choice when faced with the orange glare of sodium street lighting.
The stars are not conspicuous in this image; next time 5 or 10 minutes should bring them out more, although star trails would create quite a different effect, and longer times will disperse the cloud shapes. As the wand is lit by the ambient city, moonlight plays only a minor role here, but the clouds would not be visible without it.
What’s a little unusual about this scene – not the long exposure (60 secs at f2, ISO 200), the moonlight or the cherub (supplied of course by the photographer) – is the vertical composition. The spire and the height of the trees make the usual horizontal composition here fairly difficult, but they are well adapted to a vertical composition, as seen here in wide angle (24mm in 35mm film terms). Strong vertical elements are usually required for the success of vertical compositions, and this has at least three of them.
A good depth of focus is the main challenge in this type of set-up. For f2, the depth of focus is quite amazing, softening only on the immediate foreground. As the Lumix LX3 was already at its longest shutter speed, the only other way to extend depth of focus was to select a higher ISO (to give f2.8 at ISO 400; f4 at ISP 800, etc), but higher ISOs are marginal with the LX3 – another limiting factor. At least the newest models have much improved ISO capabilities.
There is good colour range in this image and some strong horizontal lines (wires, shadow, church), while the stars and moving cloud in a blue sky complete the picture. A minor challenge was to finish the exposure without car headlights striping the scene, as we were on a country road with reasonable traffic for early evening. A distant headlight to the left of the fencepost adds more “night proof”.
The little angel comes from Bangkok; she has fairy wings of course so scarcely fits the usual Western conception, however her status is clear from her origins – a Catholic supplies shop (for Thai, not Westerners) – and her purpose, which is to adorn a household shrine. I attempted some torch highlights on her in the same place, but was still trying to get the lighting to balance when it clouded over.
Sadly at that point the evening’s photography came to an end.
The rugged Nelson hinterland has many forest plantations to supply this “dark satanic mill”, sited on a reclaimed shore of Waimea Inlet, not far from the town of Richmond. My approach was at sunset, across the mudflats of Tasman Bay and along an uninspiring shoreline, access which I had reconnoitred the month before. This time I came back with tripod and gumboots, and had an hour or so to fill before the moon rose, and other things. The tide was still far off, so I had only the baritone rumble of the mill for audio.
Industrial photographers pair twilight and artificial lighting because when faced with such tubercular monstrosities as this, it’s really the only lipstick you can apply. The twilight was much deeper than the sky suggests, but the lighting balance is about right and the shutter speed of one second has allowed a sense of movement in the vapour clouds (f2.8, ISO 400).
Usually I select tungsten as the colour temperature, to deal with the orange cast of artificial lighting and to add more saturation to the blue background. Oddly, however, the daylight setting delivered more verve and drama for this one, so that’s what you see above.
Colour temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin, and in photographic terms it ranges from roughly 1,750 for candlelight to over 12,000 for blue sky, with moonlight (4100) and bright summer sunlight (5400) in between. Tungsten refers to filament lighting and is fixed at 3200 deg K for photographers.
Using the tungsten setting for daylight pictures makes for very sombre, bluish hues; with professional lighting however it delivers a full range of colours. Mixing daylight with pro lighting on tungsten film is an old professional’s “trick”. Advanced digital cameras have auto adjustments for colour temperature (white balance); this probably makes it harder for digital photographers to relate to the limitations of colour film, with its lack of flexibility with different light sources.
Here is another moonless image (see no. 24), lit only by inner city ambience. While waiting for the moon to rise I did a patrol of our neighbours’ property, as they were on holiday. It’s a big place we once co-owned (many years ago, before we moved over the fence), yet passing the old shed I saw its possibilities for night photography for the first time. Although north-facing, its location meant it would not be moonlit for many hours, so after assessing the considerable illumination from city lights, I thought to make a start here.
Exposure was f2.1 for 20 seconds on ISO 100, with the zoom on the Lumix LX3 set at 26mm (in 35mm photo terms). The clean colour on the figurine suggests a tungsten setting, although this is not recorded on the exposure metadata. Aided by a good light in the shed, I placed St Mary on a table next to a nest of old bicycles. The exposure indicates that the city lights (as seen in the window) were still three or four times stronger than moonlight – so waiting long hours for some direct rays would have been pointless anyway. Actually, in my old neighbourhood the proximity of street lighting on three sides restricted my moonlit home-and-garden photography to only a few shaded corners.
The blue sky on the right hand corner is explained by the moon having risen (but behind the house). The sky adds depth, while I like the texture of the corrugated iron and the prevailing colours of light blue and rusty red. The wisteria is bare in winter but beautiful in late spring. The Holy Mother is holding a bunch of roses. As I recollect she is about 40 cm high. We bought her in Bangkok, of all places, in a Catholic supplies shop. The Thais are very big on this sort of representation, be the figures divine, royal or simply revered: Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or folk.
My people shots by moonlight have been infrequent, but with the luxury of quality ISO 2000 on the new Nikon D700, I will do more. The movement factor widens the creative scope of long exposures considerably. Here it’s demonstrated simply, by Gerry taking a puff of her cigarette for 8 seconds (at f4, using a 28mm wide angle lens). What this pic lacks in an ember trail it makes up for with a startling daylight effect, supplied by just a few seconds of open shutter – my previous camera required 60 seconds minimum for this.
Given the usual warm tones of moonlight, a second surprise is the colour balance: an unexpected daylight feel, especially in skin tone. The auto balance is obviously a real performer. Unfortunately the auto focus is not so clever and nor am I: the lack of focus on Gerry shows. A less experienced photographer might pass this off as subject movement but the clue is in the fuzzy seaweed in the right hand corner. Supposing that I’m more experienced, shouldn’t I have realised that casual focus would not pay, even with a wide angle lens at f4? Conversely, had I focussed at 2 m, roughly my distance here, background sharpness would’ve been quite passable.. in mitigation I must plead fatigue after a great night of photography. Not to mention lack of practice with manual focus on the new lens – and auto focus settings.
This night visit was my first to the area and the view above is my only “daylight” impression of it. Although it’s a small settlement Ocean Beach seems to have some renown, and certainly the final approach down a steep narrow road cut into the hillside was memorable for Gerry, at the wheel. Also memorable was the unseasonable 2 degrees Celsius, the result of a frigid southerly breeze “springing” up. Under the circumstances I told Gerry that for this photograph she could keep her clothes on.
On a clear, crisp autumn night I had several hours of uninterrupted camerawork below the old Brook Reservoir, where a rocky stream under open sky presents many possibilities for long exposures in a peaceful setting. Only five minutes’ drive from the suburbs of Nelson, at the far end of the motor camp, this public reserve is unfrequented at night. It will soon be part of the Waimarama Sanctuary, a fully enclosed wildlife and native plant reserve.
For this photo the Holy Virgin & Infant figurine was respectfully placed at the mouth of a culvert which diverts a hillside stream close to the concrete abutments of the reservoir. Apart from a surreal setting, the essential ingredients for this shot were a solid footing on the banks to enable a suitable viewpoint (doubtful at first), plus a vertical composition to take in both the figurine and the soft flow of water.
Framing problems with the Lumix LX3 are evident in the close crop at the top, as the composition was a blind one, made by trial and error. Settings were f2.7 and 60 seconds, at ISO 400, the upper limit for useable images on the Lumix. Waterfalls and the like will convert to an attractive softness in only a second or so, but any exposure longer than 10 seconds ensures maximum effect.
Unfortunately the exposure above was the longest the situation would allow, meaning some underexposure of the figurine. This was happily remedied later in Photoshop and dodging has brought out her colours. These make an agreeable contrast with the shiny greens and misty appearance of the water.
Scale is not obvious but the figurine is about 25 cm high. Although some extra care is required in the focussing, close range images can make for striking and original examples of moonlight photography.
The 7.30pm time slot is only approximate, as you are looking at a 20 minute experience. The night was close to new moon, so this cannot possibly be by moonlight (for a change) but instead the illumination is from the working lights of Port Taranaki, well below the viewpoint here.
This wide angle shot on the 6×7 Pentax was recorded on HP5 film, ISO 400. I neglected to note f-stop (probably f8) but the exposure was calculated after a quick trial with a digital camera at higher settings, then doubled to allow for reciprocity slow-down. Twenty minutes was enough for good star trails, I thought, however they are only starting to look interesting. Must have forgotten that wide angle lenses minimise star movement; telephotos maximise them. Their slight curve above suggests the view is to the southwest, as to our eyes the stars revolve around the South Pole.
Thin low cloud was billowing over the summit but it was hard to tell how it would show up. Another variable was how panochromatic film would respond to the fairly orange light, in a long exposure – actually no problem. Framing was awkward wide open at f4, as not enough light was transmitted for the viewfinder.
While the shutter was open I hoped a car would not drive into the carpark, which so far I’d had to myself. Wouldn’t the sweep of headlights overpower the foreground? Really I need not have worried, and in any event such intrusions sometimes add interest in unexpected ways. The perspective does not convey the scale of this volcanic remnant, but the sign at bottom left might help… I couldn’t leave it out anyway. A staircase and then a safety chain takes you to the 153m summit, where a trig point is just visible, and a great view. In pre-European days it had a Maori palisade. It would have been a very windy place of refuge.
Arriving at a known location after dark still has its uncertainties, especially when the moon is just past full and so has yet to appear. Where exactly will it come up, and how long before it illuminates my landscape?? This lovely scene is inland from Stratford but not too far into the hill country. After many days of rugged winds in Hawkes Bay and Manawatu it was a relief on my way home to have a clear, calm night. I staked a place at the top of the road, and watched impatiently the developing moonglow on the horizon behind.
“Moonrise” in the title is not wholly accurate, as this was not taken on the actual event, but some little time after, when the moonbeams had powered up enough to light the snowy peak before me. At first there was nothing at all to see in the viewfinder, but then the strong reflection off the snow became unmistakeable. Here the middle distance is still in shadow, meaning the moon has some way to climb. I like this sinuous shadow line replicating the hill’s, while the pines mimic the peak itself.
Venus has more than a walk-on part, burning a hole in the southwestern sky. She was apparently at her very brightest for 2011 over this week. The cool overall feeling is a photographer’s trick and results from a tungsten setting, chosen for effect. As with the rising sun, early moonlight is warmer than the later rays, but this night my mood was against golden syrup.
All was still and quiet and in 45 minutes not a single vehicle came past. Exposure was a quick 15 seconds at f2, ISO 1000, on a 85mm Nikon lens. Having bought an ultra-fast f1.4 lens I now stop down at least once because the lens seems to give some vignetting when wide open – and at f2 I suspect that the lens will be a tad sharper.
Blame celestial mechanics for the fact that the full moon always rises at or close to sunset, a million moony paste-ins high over well-lit landscapes to the contrary. (If I was really grumpy I’d add how quickly “moonlight fatigue” sets in when half that multitude describe their fakes as “moonlight”).
This is not moonlight; it’s a real moon photographed in dwindling daylight with an 85mm lens on a Nikon D700. Even at ISO 2000, f16 at 500th sec indicates daylight, here underexposed for effect. f16 gives good depth of focus, covering both the trees and the distant cattle. The cows were grazing the slopes of Te Mata, an outstanding rib of rock forming an interesting, driveable backdrop to Hastings and Havelock North on the plain nearby.
The evening before full moon (especially) is great for setting the rising moon against the landscape, or cumulus clouds low in the sky, because the light values of each are roughly similar. Much earlier moons get too high in the sky for this purpose, although they are still useful for reflection off bright surfaces Conversely, a big moon rising after dark is “only” good for landscape silhouette, if the moon itself is not to be blown out entirely. But the night before full – that’s brilliant.
In composition terms the image above illustrates my developing three-punch theory. According to this, the first punch delivers the scene, the second supplies the elements which give extra character or design, while the third punch is the further detail which adds real depth or intrigue, often only apparent on closer look – in this case the miniaturised cattle.
Alas, there are thousands of one-punchers in my collection – appealing scenes that are like nice stage sets at the theatre, all awaiting further “action”. I have so often forgotten to find a second punch for them. And the third punch is even harder to deliver.
A layby gave this uncommon mid-tree vantage point on a cabbage tree fronting poplars and other deciduous trees, some freshly in leaf. This scene has quite likely featured in numerous local camera club showings, but by moonlight it was a novel prospect to me. Here, though, the wind was positively howling up the gully, in stark contrast to the earlier sheltered calm above Waimarama. In this 15-second wide angle exposure all the cabbage leaves are animated except for the lower, leeward bunch, while the nearby willow is also a blur of green.
A high viewpoint like this is good for getting such long slender forms, as they are otherwise hard to take in, especially if you want a background other than sky. Although the 28mm lens is less effective in conveying a sense of depth – the slope before me was very steep – only a wide angle could scope this landscape. It also resolved focus problems (even wide open) after some initial difficulties getting a good bead with the telephoto (85mm). Gusts of wind were no help.
The daylight effect is deliberate, but a few stars in sight reassure us that this really is moonlight photography. The contours were engaging while the tree forms were enchanting, even in the dimness. The distant dots of white were sheep at rest. As I was in need of some myself, I didn’t take as long at this outlook as I should have. I must remember to check each frame more carefully, as other photos from here revealed unexpected patches of erosion and had to be disqualified. f2.8 at ISO 2000.
So it can’t be daylight with a sweeping light trail like that, can it? The distant glow of Waimarama township also gives it away. I prefer traffic going the other way for those fine red streaks, but in this wide angle view the headlights aren’t overpowering and colourwise they set off well the spring yellow of the willow buds. I had started with the bare trees on the right, but on their own that was less successful.
For this moonlight photography composition in classic thirds (or is fourths?) I used maximum aperture at f2.8, for 13 seconds, ISO 2000. Light balance was on auto, not tungsten, for spring warmth. Getting your shutter open just before the headlights show up isn’t that simple. For example, using the self-timer instead of a remote release adds a few seconds’ delay to the process, while timing the length of exposure to get the full sweep of the lights is another variable. Practice, practice.
The location is the top of the hill where so many summer photos of this coast must get taken. There was surprising traffic both ways for a Wednesday night, and I was happy to be well above it on a side road. However I do admit that I began at the layby, the usual vantage point – taking the same postcard scene I’d noted in town earlier in the day – before it occurred to me to wander down the side road in search of other viewpoints.
The bits and pieces in the foreground were not removed because I did not notice them at the time. Here by the roadside gumboots saved the day once again in the usual mud-bites-man encounter… Waimarama has a tavern, shop, old church and a playcentre. Also a domain, we discovered. Offshore is Bare Island, impressively cliff-bound from the beach but evidently on the seaward side it’s of easier contour and vegetated.
This was my first night out with the new camera, so I was keen to see what ISO 2000 felt like for moonlight photography; also the extra scope having f1.4 on the 85mm lens – not a lens I’ve used before. I had a new 28mmm lens to try out too.
I’d decided on ISO 2000 as the general limit for night photography after studying www.dxomark.com, a useful website which ranks sensor ISO fidelity limits (amongst many other things). The Nikon D700 scores well with good colour and saturation up to ISO 2300, helped perhaps by the full frame: “Give those pixels and photons lots of elbow room.”
This night a spring storm had been blowing for days, but we were wrapped up and at least had our backs to the horribly cold blast. After finding our way to Clifton Beach and through the motor camp ($1 in the slot) we parked right at the road end. Then a walk along the stony beach, under the cliffs, to this place, which I’d never been to before… Google’s satellite images don’t really put you there, but I do find them useful after a visit.
This is one of the first views I took on the 28mm lens, at the maximum of f2.8 for only 8 seconds, not bad for two nights before full moon. As usual, I screened the tripod from the wind as much as possible. It blew from offshore so there was minimal surf, which is a relief when you’re working close to the tide, even in gumboots. The cloud adds interest to the sky; stars have been stopped; the colour on and above the cliffs wasn’t visible at the time, of course, but I was pleased to see the lines of cobbles along the beach clearly in the viewfinder, even at f2.8 max. There is vignetting in the sky at right, which surprised me.
Last week was my first visit to the Hawkes Bay coast via the hill country – I come from across the island, on the opposite coast. Apparently there are three other beach settlements south of Cape Kidnappers, each reached singly by long road from the inland highway.
Arriving somewhere for the first time at night is usually such a different experience, and when we came upon these fat little phoenixes in the dark we laughed. Even in a domain they were still so unexpected and unaccompanied – there was no pavilion or other structure you usually find along with this sort of beach embellishment.
Seeing such an unusual avenue of dwarves lit up by headlights, we set about doing something on it. It’s fun to have someone else along to help make interesting images, however it took quite a few runs by Gerry in her car to get what I was after. At least we had the place to ourselves, and had no worries about other traffic.
The challenge was to match the strong illumination from the car with the much weaker light from the moon, as moonlight is roughly par with the light from a 2 watt bulb. Either we had to turn off the headlights or do faster runs, to reduce their effect. Using just the blinking hazard lights achieved this and a bit more. Exposure was f8 for 30 secs, at ISO 2000, on the new Nikon D700, with the 28mm lens. Actually f11 would have been better, as I’ve had to damp down the daylight effect we ended up with.
However my first move had been to select tungsten for light source. Once available to photographers only as an entire length of film, this setting tones down the orange hazard lights while cooling the moonlight. It’s a great option for extra creative effects, especially underexposure by moonlight. Having not yet mastered custom settings, I still had to remember “Tungsten!”
Chasing the full moon in Hawkes Bay recently, I saw this scene on the Waimarama road and circled back. A pretty stand of European trees is not such a common sight by New Zealand highways, and in their new leafage these looked promising. It took a while to spot the lone horse grazing within (and only later did I see the second). By moonlight the effect was striking and quite dreamy, but unfortunately the leggy girl with the long blonde hair must have had the night off…
Alas, how different my white stallion looked the following night when he came down to the fence; on this second stop we saw instead a small and somewhat scrawny pony – one of a number, it turned out. In a metaphorical mood, I remarked to Gerry that moonlight is to ponies what candlelight is to people. Where moonlight draws a veil, daylight reveals all. Such surprises showed up in other photos from that night – an unseen curve of tarseal here, an erosion feature there – but these are only minor bugbears for moonlight photography; a bigger issue is just getting the frame properly focussed.
Of my numerous shots here, only this one is halfway sharp. To minimise likely movement of the pony I used a large aperture (f2.8) for 5 seconds at ISO 2000, when a better hedge would be to counteract the shallow focus of the 85mm lens with a smaller f-stop (to deepen the field). Results with the manual setting were no better.
The 85mm is a great lens by daylight, but I need more care and experience with it by night. This was only my second evening out with the new Nikon D700; after the frustrations of the Lumix LX3 it felt much more productive to be using shorter exposures enabled by higher ISOs, a faster prime lens (f1.4) and a viewfinder easy to compose through.
A 6×7 Pentax shot, with sepia added in Photoshop after scanning the 120 negative. Still being used by Craig Potton, pre-eminent NZ landscapist, the 6×7 is a scaled-up version of the popular 35mm Pentax of yore. A whopper to handle, it is at least simple to use, although reloading is fiddly. However the 6×7 advantage in offset reproduction is clear when comparing, say, calendar images against those from 35mm originals. As a young photographer I admired the picture quality in glossy magazines without realising so much of it came from medium and large format cameras, using tripods and lights.
The 6×7 is a trial to take moonlighting, not only because it’s heavy. Increased format size is matched by decreased focal depth, so that it is harder to cover your subject well, and the 120 format is less forgiving of sloppy focus. To compensate for dim and difficult focusing, I select a smaller aperture (to extend depth of field) and lengthen exposure to 10, 20 or 40 minutes. My usual alternative to simply sitting around, waiting, is to take a second tripod and camera outfit, and work both at once – but I wouldn’t recommend this for a windy beach at night, because the sand risk means there’s just no work-space. I took the above photo in a bitter wind, with all my gear on my back.
The standard lens was set close to infinity, exposure unrecorded. Taken at the foot of Paritutu, the foreground is a blur of surf at mid-tide. For a high moon like this, earlier in the evening, go out 3 or 4 nights before it’s full. Not every “Seascape by moonlight” is genuine but yours can be authentic even at first quarter (the half-moon), if silhouette and reflection are your aim. If you use film, be sure to vary exposure and note your settings – as well as the age of the moon – until you are familiar with results.
This image is one I was thrilled to get. It’s taken from an elevated platform some way up the steep steps from Back Beach to the carpark. The location is Paritutu, a volcanic relic of old New Zealand and a favourite haunt of mine; the giant rock somewhat shields this viewpoint from industrial intrusion. Offshore is distinctive Saddleback (Motumahanga), one of the Sugar Loaves (Ngamotu) – and the light trail of a departing ship. Just around the corner to the right is the harbour, a decommissioned power plant (and 195 m chimney) and fuel depots.
Exposure was 1 minute at f2.8, ISO 100, lens at maximum setting (60mm in 35mm terms). The moon was 4 nights away from full, so far from maximum strength, but seascapes using reflection and silhouette require the least exposure of moonlit subjects. This could be one reason for their relative commonness, although I believe the light trail rescues this example. There is nice detail in the foreground rocks, the surf is wispy, the clouds have come out well… taken in monochrome, with a sepia tint added later. My earlier, colour versions of shipping movements from the beach were disappointing for the lack of a good telephoto, which I will re-visit and remedy sometime soon.
The elevation here adds a sense of depth unobtainable on the beach. As a sheltered corner of the coast the steps were very welcome after four exciting but tiring hours on the wind-swept beach. Not a soul had come by in that time – I had the place to myself the entire evening. The 6×7 Pentax had unfortunately packed up at the last frame on the beach, leaving me just the Lumix LX3 to play around with. One minute exposures are followed by a dark frame minute before your image appears – meaning you have plenty of time to enjoy the silence of the stars, to the soundtrack of the surf.
After midnight, with increasing cloud, the moon shining all too briefly between great gloomy scuds. f2.8, 60 seconds, 400 ISO, slightly cropped to trim intrusive vegetation. One big drawback of the Lumix LX3 for night photography is that while the 60 second shutter enables, the viewfinder disables. Nothing can be seen because it’s too dark! So you have to aim by guesswork, adjust and re-shoot, adjust again and keep at it until you get it right. Trial shots at 3200 ISO make this process speedier, with exposures of 2 – 8 seconds, but another hassle shows up meantime: the zoom auto-retracts. So if you favour the standard end, you must also remember to check the zoom each time, to be sure you still have the same angle of view.
The high ISO trial images are not actually useable because the Lumix is marginal even at 400 ISO, while pics at 800 ISO are virtually useless. I was a bit shocked to read on a high tech website, www.dxomark.com, that the tested limit for good ISO images for the LX3 was just under 100 ISO! While photography is all about such problems, and how to overcome them, my immediate challenge (above) was to nail the peak as it came into view, as the swirling cloud repeatedly obscured it. It was good to have the swirl in a supporting role of course.
The sheltered tree ferns suggest only calm and it was a mild night, thanks to the northwest breeze, but the mountain seemed very close. The top of Kent Road is not far (5km?) from the National Park boundary. This appears as JULY in my Taranaki the Mountain, by day & night 2011 calendar – but can it really be Taranaki without a sprinkling of cows in the paddock?
An autumn view looking south. Situated in the northern South Island, Rotoiti is the park’s leading gem. I didn’t set out to compose this in thirds, and its not quite so anyway, but this shot consistently gets good reactions and perhaps because of its traditional composition.
However the most recent comment related to the light; someone familiar with this scene by daylight remarked that he had never before seen the light so even on Mt Robert, whose slopes are conspicuous. Moonlight is not as harsh as sunlight, being warmer for a start, and the long exposure may have some bearing on this, with the slow arc of the moon softening any shadow edges.
Of course my friend had never seen the star trails either, a pair which conveniently occupy a pleasantly blue but otherwise fairly blank sky… no doubt there would be more stars visible on a moonless night. Blue skies in my moonlight photos surprise people but I once glimpsed this high in the heavens in real time, as patches of blue showing up amongst great masses of luminous cloud. An odd but awesome phenomenon.
In this photo there’s some cloud movement, and a breeze to shimmer the reflection on the lake. The shadows add a sense of depth but are really too black, and I see some vignetting in the sky to the left. With long exposures, particularly of half an hour or more, you never know what you’ll get. Using film adds the further uncertainty of reciprocity effects, when light sensitivity slows up and colour shifts can happen,. Here, however, there’s no obvious shift, unlike the magenta cast notorious in earlier years with Kodak film.
Time and timing were unrecorded but this took around 30 – 40 minutes on Fujichrome, using the Pentax 6×7 with the 55mm wide angle lens wide open at f4. This is the JULY image in my Moonlight calendar for 2011.
The last shot possible that evening, as low cloud rolled in to obscure Mt Taranaki and the moon itself. Exposed to the prevailing westerlies, this region has highly changeable weather and many a moonlit evening is lost to incoming cloud and rain… Actually I should have nailed this view earlier that night, but I spent too long looking the other way, out to sea and out of sight of this. It’s taken at f2.8 for 60 seconds, at 200 ISO, and shines as the MAY pic in my Taranaki: the Mountain, by day and night calendar for 2011.
This is unusual firstly for the peek-a-boo moonlit mountain; secondly the even balance of lighting on both peak and pylons; thirdly it’s a major crop from a Lumix LX3, a desperate manoeuvre when a standard lens just won’t pull the scene in. The balance of light values is luck rather than design, helped by the snow still around in late spring. Taranaki is an awesome sight by full moon, but it’s visibility depends on the reflective power of a good snow cover. Over late summer and autumn, when it is bare, the moonlit peak is less conspicuous and sometimes I have to do trial exposures from home to see if it’s really mountain or just cloud on the southern horizon.
Paritutu strictly refers to a volcanic outcrop behind the port, some 153 m high (500 ft), but this shot is taken nearby, at road level. The floodlight from the left is from the Dow chemical plant, the sodium glare on the right from the tank farm. The march of pylons comes from a decommissioned power plant at the port. All in all, quite an industrial setting for Paritutu Centennial Park, yet the park came first (1940). It includes the Sugar Loaves, volcanic remnants quite distinctive to our coast, which north of Kapiti is otherwise entirely island-free .
The exact time and length of exposure for this I never recorded, but the film was Agfa Isopan (100 ISO?), developed as a B&W slide and then sepia toned. Over 1981-82 I developed a good number of monochrome films with a reversal kit; the results however were always fussy and frequently spotty – photos from negatives are easier to rescue. This pic, though, has always screened to a warm response; it puzzles audiences used to daylight and to glorious Kodachrome.
That autumn I was touring the country with a lady friend, doing my first calendar for Friends of the Earth. On this tranquil evening in south Otago I’m standing by the Linhof 4×5, timing a long exposure of the limestone cliffs across the bay. A good jacket and a cap warms me from the stiff sea breeze, and gumboots (wellingtons) keep the damp away; waterproof boots are a real boon for the night photographer. The translucence shows that I’ve walked into the exposure after it’s begun, as self-timers can’t do time (B) exposures. The beach is wide and gentle on the receding tide, while surf breaks on the far rocks. There is some movement in the thin cloud cover also, although the cloud was only intermittent. The two shadows are matched with reflections off the wet flats.
Composing a well-lit scene such as this was easy with the f1.4 standard lens on the Pentax Spotmatic F, but focussing was more problematic. Nowadays when I use this same camera for moonlight photography I do a minimum of f4 for 10 – 20 minutes (100 ISO film), or sometimes f8 for longer, to increase depth of field and thus improve focus. With a slower wide angle lens focus is less of a worry but then it’s harder to frame the average moonlit scene, and to see what’s in it. This pic features in the introduction to my Moonlight Calendar for 2011.
FEBRUARY in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011 – a simple scene that seems to intrigue people, a minute of miniature surf on the cobbles of the Boulder Bank. The Bank is a unique natural formation 18 km long sheltering Nelson Haven, Port Nelson and the city. Here, some 10 km along it, we’re looking across Tasman Bay to the hills of Abel Tasman National Park and Separation Point. It was a still evening, common enough for the Bay this time of year, and while I knew the wave lap on rocks would look good, I expected a more visible streak of surf than the sea-mist which turned up instead.
True the surf was small, but it was perfectly formed and enough to wet your gear if your tripod was too close to the action. Quite apart from the uneven footing, finding a suitable spot in the tide for the tripod was a challenge, as further away from the surf there would be less impact. There’s a lot to be said too for knowing the tides, but this evening I’d forgotten the tables. Since then I’ve bought two of them – one for the car, one for home – as they contain daily sun and moon times also, always good to have on hand.
Although the Lumix LX3 zoom is restricted by a lack of telephoto, the standard setting has good depth of field, as this frame demonstrates at f2.8 and 200 ISO. My new 85mm Nikon lens might have handled it better, but a longer exposure on f16 and higher ISO would be needed to get close to the same depth of field. This would mean more cloud movement too, which is sometimes good but here I wanted the distant cloud as it looked, even if some drift is detectable. This shot could have been a good monochrome, but that has only come to me more recently.
The JUNE image from my Moonlight calendar for 2011. Note the blue of the sea and background, the white boat light and clean sodium fill on the shrubs in the foreground… all signs of a tungsten setting. Tungsten refers to filament lighting, so this answers the orange cast of most street and home lighting. Tungsten also adds a coolness to moonlight which is in tune with our actual perceptions, although moonlight is basically golden sunlight – reflected sunshine that hits us less than 2 seconds after bouncing off the moon. The moon’s warmth changes with its elevation in the sky, the same as with sunlight. Moonlight warms conspicuously when the moon is closer to the horizon, when its angle of strike through the atmosphere is more oblique.
The Cut is a passage dredged 100 years ago in the Boulder Bank, an impressive natural breakwater. Port Nelson is nearby and other, bigger boats came through the Cut that evening, but none described an arc as simple as this fishing boat’s, in a minute exposure at f2.8 and 200 ISO. Two minutes would give a better effect but longer exposures aren’t possible on the Lumix LX3; while it has a generous 60 second setting (hard to find on more sophisticated cameras), there is no B setting, for time exposure.
I checked my file sequence to confirm the boat was going out, not coming in. Tasman Bay is quite sheltered and the lack of swell is evident in the even curve of the light (no squiggles), although there’s minor movement of the distant yacht on the high tide. Other movement is visible from the breeze in the greenery, but not the flashing of the harbour lights. Background lights are those of Mapua. Some foreground was unavoidable from the only vantage point available on the cliff above, but I believe it adds some sense of depth all the same.
Farm animals make good subjects for moonlight photography precisely because they won’t keep still. Sometimes they hold it remarkably well though, as this placid minute in a cow paddock shows. The two leading beasts twitched their heads, to prove the point that this is indeed a night photo – as if the stars weren’t evidence enough. With the lens at widest zoom and f2, ISO 200 was the setting. The wide perspective has reduced the star stutter; conversely for maximum star trail effects, a telephoto is more appropriate. Unfortunately, for star effects one minute is neither dot nor trail, but some sort of middling dash.
I chose the slope for its simple ridgeline and because the cows would be nicely placed along it. Often some elevation is needed to give a scene that extra sense of depth and here the rising ground served that purpose. The shadow of the trees behind was steadily dropping as the moon rose, but I wanted this in the frame to make a compositional third; the grass seemed a bit blank otherwise. The water trough was not visible at the time and shows too much in other frames. I liked seeing the stock uncrowded, strip-grazing being so common on Taranaki dairy farms. This photo comes without the incredible sound-track of cattle lowing, blowing, peeing and huffing; a sonic performance that as a townie I would never have imagined.
Featured as NOVEMBER in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011, this shot is taken at the fenceline of a no exit road. I’m not against getting closer but our spontaneous wander down it meant we did not have any landowner’s permission. Country people are suspicious enough of vehicles on their quiet roadsides; staying close to your car allows an immediate explanation. Whatever, a no exit road should reduce the chance of disturbance.
Waikawa is a fairly typical New Zealand beach settlement, not far from Levin, and about as far as Wellingtonians ever want to drive for the weekend. Sodium lamps are sprinkled throughout this well-lit settlement, as it has numerous permanent residents as well as seasonal ones. A letterbox or the lack usually tells the difference, although here the absence of a formed driveway says it all. This house was handy to where we stayed, it’s a really quiet location and my company had long retired. Personal safety never seemed an issue at Waikawa but my moonlight creativity that weekend was hampered by unsettled weather and a chill southerly.
My shadow seemed a more interesting option than having the tripod shadow in the frame. The problem with the Lumix LX3 used here is the viewfinder does not work in such low light, often requiring several test shots at high ISO to get the framing right. Maximum setting of f2 on the wide angle allowed a low ISO of 100, exposed for one minute. On the Lumix this is close to the limit for noiseless images with good saturation. On Light Balance tungsten was selected to reduce the orange glare of the street light, and this choice can be detected in the blue moonlight filling in the tree-shadow on the house. In photographic terms moonlight is actually pleasantly warm, not cool. Photographers sometimes use tungsten film to render moonlit scenes closer to the way the human eye perceives them.
While street lighting at close proximity is too strong to mix with moonlight, there are opportunities at the fringe, and sometimes the infiltration of quite distant street lighting can be quite surprising. This is simple composition with strong coloration, good lines and a sense of depth, while I believe the shadow adds some piquancy. The image appears as MARCH in my Moonlight Calendar for 2011.
The new footbridge on the northern outskirts of the city was only open a few weeks when I took this photo, which is AUGUST in my Taranaki: The Mountain 2011 calendar (now available). Built to a clever design suggesting whale vertebrae, the bridge extends a popular coastal walkway across farmland to the suburb of Bell Block. The novel structure has had a lot of attention and each time we’ve visited, usually close to sunset, there have been heaps of people around – and always a photographer or two. Of course the thing is to go when the mountain is visible… a cool southerly seems to assure a clear view, but be sure to dress for it. And people do add something to a bridge scene, in the sense at least of “Here’s a figure for scale”.
Whatever your feeling for crowds, they melt away as soon as the sun drops below the horizon, so as twilight deepens you quite quickly have the place to yourself. Here, about 45 minutes after sundown, the f2.8, 60 sec exposure at ISO 80 suggests twilight was almost over, the residual illumination being almost as low as moonlight. Two short star trails are visible but I was disappointed by the city glow below the peak (about 30 km away here). Standard lens setting, slight crop, although a longer lens would seem obvious to bring the mountain in more. However even without the limitations of my Lumix LX3, there is a problem with the curving approach ramp. In trying to keep the peak lined up with a telephoto, one is soon off-level and down the embankment. Daisy Day (www.taranakisurf.com) and other photographers have taken long lenses to more distant hillocks, maybe hoping for the same line-up, but since then the farmland has been posted off-limits.
Well if you’re going to have problems in life, these are the sort you’d be happy to settle for.
The Stony is the largest river on this western side of the mountain; certainly it has the widest bed and the strew of boulders suggests the awesome power of floods which descend periodically from the slopes. With a friend I arrived right on dark at the Blue Rata Reserve, an outlier of the national park. A short walk through the bush brings you out onto this broad reach of sand and boulders. Needless to say, we had the place to ourselves and it was a really beautiful night, with only a slight breeze coming down the riverbed. It makes a strong impression arriving somewhere for the first time by moonlight, and I was grateful for the company (thanks Dave) as it felt a bit spooky as well. However it was a great way to spend the last evening of summer.
The moon had been up for just over an hour, as the oblique lighting of the rugged slopes shows. By late summer very little snow is still about, and well into autumn Mt Taranaki (2518 metres/8260 ft) is entirely bereft, sometimes as late as mid-May. The lack of snow makes it easier to balance the elements within the exposure; I set the Lumix LX3 at f2.8 and one minute at ISO 200 for more of a moonlit feeling. The tripod was partly in the water, and set lower than usual to get the rapids in – one minute will always do great things to tumbling water, waterfalls and the like. Depth of field is sometimes a problem at f2.8 but not here, and as long as you are willing to make the journey this is not a difficult photo to take. However to get this side of Taranaki really well-lit by moonlight requires a much later hour, when the moon is more westerly.
This is the DECEMBER image from our Taranaki: The mountain 2011 calendar, which celebrates Mt Taranaki’s hold on the local landscape. South Road is the main artery to western Taranaki, a fairly unpopulated district but one full of possibilities for the keen photographer.
In early summer the last of the season’s snow was receding on the tops, roughly 27km away. Digital was my first preference here, but for all its merits as a low-light camera the Lumix LX3 stops at a standard setting (60mm equivalent), so I resorted to my trusty Pentax SP F (Suva, June 1974) and of course a tripod. A 100mm lens was used to flatten perspective and bring in the peak; the 200mm lens was even better but that shot was spoilt by camera shake.
Then it was game over, as the peak became too dim for the purpose. Twilight at this latitude (39 degrees south) gives a balanced light for these compositions for only a short time, although in summer the interval is a little longer. Exposure not recorded but roughly two minutes at f16, on Fujichrome slide film. The number of points on the starry lights indicate how many blades are inside the lens, according to Ken Rockwell (www.kenrockwell.com) – something I’d never even considered. This photo gets a range of reactions; it’s quite captivating to some, but seems a little contrived to other (sophisticated?) eyes – the variety of comment on a single photo can be really surprising. We have also published this image as a greeting card.
This simple image is actually a suburban west Auckland scene, of native trees along the boundary of a friend’s house in Woodlands Park, in the Waitakere ranges. It features as the MAY image in my 2011 Moonlight Calendar, and has been published as a greeting card.
The red highlights just visible come from the house; the moon is shining through a light haze. I was pleasantly surprised this came out so well, earlier shots featuring the moon point blank having given no great encouragement. However the right exposure subjugates all else to the brightness of the moon – thus the silhouettes. Exposure was 3.2 secs at f2.8 on my Lumix LX3, ISO set at a high 400 in error.
The photogenic nikau is very much a New Zealand icon but for me the palm has other associations too, when I was a partner in Nikau Press, a small publishing house still operating in Nelson. This particular night I was a frustrated photographer, as my photo-fun was soon foreclosed on by social obligations, pleasant though they were. Daylight photographers have it easy.
Harataonga is a gem on the eastern side of Great Barrier Island, about 100 km east of Auckland. We camped out there for several days in February 1982 to get photos for a Friends of the Earth calendar. From a headland near the beach I got the Linhof 4×5 ready before dark, as a field camera takes a fair bit of setting up, with a black cape and upside down frame-and-focus. I used a moderate telephoto lens and exposed Fujichrome for 45 minutes at f5.5, pretty much as a guestimate. The moon had risen above the frame and its light is diffused through slow-moving cloud.
This is the full frame; I have resisted the temptation to trim the skeletal tree or to recompose. The outline offshore is a rugged islet; the creek is tidal but deep; the headland is an old Maori pa site. The photo gets a range of reactions, mostly favourable but occasionally I hear a definite “Hallmark!!” It appears as September 2011 in my new large-format Moonlight photography calendar. We have published it as a greeting card too.
Mt Taranaki from above Inglewood. 10.02pm, 27 June 2010
This image graces the cover of my first Moonlight photography calendar, for 2011, and is now available also as a greeting card. I’d had the location very much in mind for the first full moon of winter, but the weather over previous days had been particularly dismal, even by Taranaki standards. An unexpected break was announced by a friend calling from Nelson, and I was astounded to look out to clear skies. This proverbial window lasted only a few hours, during which we covered only two locations, this being the first, roughly 20 km from New Plymouth.
The night was memorable for the striking clarity of snowy Taranaki and the constant motion of the low cloud around it, as well as the varying layers of mist over the nearby country town of Inglewood. Also memorable was my narrow escape from a high voltage electric fence which I had assumed was safe from its lack of insulated wires. Owing to the narrow shoulder of ground on my side of the fence I interlaced the legs of two tripods with the fence wires to secure stable positions. A few minutes after I had removed both tripods we heard a sudden loud and unmistakeable hum from the wires as the current began moving…
The exposure was 60 seconds at f2.5, ISO 200 on my toy Lumix LX3. Autofocus failed me on a number of times here – rather frustrating with minute-long exposures (2 mins really, to complete post-processing). The band of amber is street lighting reflected by the mist; the line of light at lower left is the signature of a distant truck with headlights at full beam. In the dense mist of the lower country I drove the backroads very slowly; out on the breezy hilltop with my cameras I was grateful for my big coat and gumboots.